The largest shareholder in Johnston Press has upped his stake in the news publisher to block any plans for its sale that he does not approve, claiming the company’s board “never had a credible strategy”.
Christen Ager-Hanssen (pictured) has boosted his shares in Johnston Press, which he owns through investment firm Custos Group, to more than 25 per cent, having previously held a 20 per cent stake.
Scotsman and i publisher Johnston Press put itself up for sale last week after struggling to refinance £220m in debt. It is still looking for a buyer.
In an statement attacking JP, Ager-Hanssen explained the move by saying he wanted to be “in a position to be more active and ensure some of the more insane board of advisor actions can be blocked”.
He criticised the board for having paid themselves “over £7m”, which he described as “an outrageous amount” more than three times the market cap, and destroying shareholder value.
“They do not understand the concept of monetisation of audience in the digital age,” he said of the board. “They never had a credible strategy.”
There has been no response from JP on these claims.
Ager-Hanssen, who owns Sweden’s equivalent of the Metro newspaper, contacted JP ahead of its surprise decision to put itself up for sale last week, asking the company how it planned to tackle its debt.
A JP spokesperson said at the time: “If Mr Ager Hanssen does have a workable proposal to refinance the business, we look forward to receiving this and we will invite him to provide more detail.”
He previously backed former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s failed bid to be JP chairman. JP owns a number of Scottish newspapers.
Ager-Hanssen claims that JP employees “at all levels” have reached out to him, offering Custos Group their support.
He added: “They crave new leadership and a proper forward thinking strategy fit for the digital age.”
Speaking to Press Gazette, a Johnston Press editor, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “For the last few years staff have repeatedly been told that the company is profitable.
“We also all know that the company has lots of debt. And Christen Ager-Hanssen has said what we all know.
“I’d like to think he’s going to be the knight in shining armour. But you don’t make a fortune like his by spending your money on things that you think will be really lovely.”
In his statement, Ager-Hanssen went on to accuse Johnston Press of “corporate theft” by putting a “poison pill” in a bond agreement that “deprived shareholders of their fundamental right and power to hold the board properly to account and to change the board as they see fit”.
He has previously said the Johnston Press board is “doing nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.
In response, a Johnston Press spokesperson said: “We launched the formal sale process last week so that interested parties could make offers for the company. That process continues and remains our focus.”
JP is said to have a market value of £3m. Interested parties are asked to contact advisors Rothschild.